April 11, 2021

Denoch Emexicana

For technology buffs

Frances Townsend and Jim Stavridis on maintaining U.S. technological superiority

29 min read

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” guest host Sandy Winnefeld interviews Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, and Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), former supreme allied commander at NATO, about their work for the American Edge Project, a political advocacy group that promotes investment in U.S. innovation and technology. Townsend and Stavridis explain the links between technological advancement and national security, and explain why China’s autocratic approach to technology in particular poses an increasingly serious threat. They outline several proposals to address known challenges, including the establishment of cyber norms to on-shoring certain critical industries. They also identify priority areas for the Biden administration to address. 

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HIGHLIGHTS: 

On maintaining superiority in development of Artificial Intelligence (Stavridis):  “China is accelerating in this area. It’s crucial. And it loops back to where Fran started the conversation with the idea of China collecting all this personal data. There are many reasons they want to do that, including the obvious. One of it allows them to extend authoritarian control over their population. But another crucial reason they want it is they want the data; data is oil, as the saying goes, and it drives machine learning, which is what ultimately drives artificial intelligence.”

Vulnerabilities in U.S. infrastructure (Townsend): “[W]e have a very exposed and vulnerable infrastructure, whether it’s the FAA air traffic control system, our electricity grid or water infrastructure. We just saw in February this hack into the Oldsmar Florida water system and a hacker was able to increase the level of the toxins in the water. Now, that was caught because there was a redundancy in the system that picked it up. But not every water system could have picked that up. And imagine if it was a state actor taking down the air traffic control system in the Northeast and us going blind in the air or turning out the lights in the northeast corridor. … I worry about turning the lights off in New York by a state actor. And so that’s that ought to be the thing that spurs Congress, the US government and our allies, because we’re not alone in that vulnerability to really commit themselves to make progress in this area.” 


INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – FRANCES TOWNSEND AND ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

SANDY WINNEFELD: Hello, you’re listening to Intelligence Matters with Michael Morrell. I’m Sandy Winnefeld, sitting in today for Michael. We’re happy to have with us today two very distinguished guests.

Frances Townsend formerly served as the White House Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Adviser and is well known for her insightful commentary on homeland security issues. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Jim Stavridis is the former Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and also the former commander of U.S. Southern Command. He’s a widely published author and a good friend. Both of us spent a lot of time together in uniform and both of our guests are National Security Advisory Board co-chairs for the American Edge Project. Fran and Jim, thank you so much for joining us today and welcome to Intelligence Matters.

And I’d like to start by asking, Fran, what exactly is the American Edge project? Is it an advocacy group, a think tank? And what is it intended to accomplish?

FRANCES TOWNSEND:You know, Sandy, I think I’d describe it as all of those things, right. It’s really been a pleasure. Jim and I, like you and Jim, worked together in the US government. And this has really been an opportunity for us to talk about the national security threat that China principally represents to our innovation and technology. You know, we see China is talking about centralizing the collection and storing of personal information collected by Tencent and Alibaba. It’s that sort of national security threat that represents a real challenge to the United States. We actually believe in personal liberty and individual privacy, but not everybody around the world does. We are very much a technological democracy, but there are technological autocracies that represent a real challenge for us.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So, Jim, what caused the two of you to come together as part of this project and along with your co-authors to to do it and to write a paper about U.S. digital power?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: First and foremost, our friendship. We’ve known each other, gosh, well over a decade, probably closer to 20 years, actually, both from the time Fran was in government and I was in uniform. But then we’ve continued to collaborate in the world of business. For example, I’m now with the Carlyle Group. She’s also involved in many private equity projects. So we just know each other very well.

Secondly, our resumes, if you will, kind of complete each other to use the ‘Jerry Maguire’ term. She’s deep into homeland security, obviously, but knows the international world very well. I’m deep into the international world, but I think I know a fair amount about national security. And we both have a shared interest in cyber. So the organizers approached us independently. And when, at least speaking for me, when I discovered Fran would be the co-chair, it was easy.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So I’d like to ask you both this question – Fran, maybe you can go first. You talk in the paper about leveraging two distinctly American assets: technological supremacy and a network of allies, partners and friends around the world who all share a commitment to democratic principles. Can you talk to our listeners a bit about how those two advantages we have or have had go hand in hand?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So let me speak first to the technological superiority, right. We’ve long been known for technological innovation and superiority, but China is close behind us, particularly in the area of facial recognition. Part of that is because of the theft of US intellectual property. But part of it is because they just are building their own capability. And so that threat to our innovative capability says to me and says to the American Edge project that we really need to band together with our allies who share our values, who share our democratic values and believe in the same individual liberty and individual privacy rights that we do, so that we can. Because as we see the expansion of the use of the Internet, especially during this time of the pandemic – never has it been more important that we are working together with our allies to set the norms of the Internet at a time when we see the Chinese inserting themselves to set the norms in a way they prefer. It’s important that we work with our allies because it’s the only way we will maintain our technological superiority.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Sandy, if I could just add a thought, it would be that our current network of allies, partners and friends, which you know very well from your days as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the crown jewel perhaps of American international security. But it’s not particularly well adapted to this sphere, to thinking about cyber, to thinking about privacy concerns and thinking about social networks and how they can be weaponized. In other words, NATO doesn’t have depth in this area. Our relationships with Japan and Australia and New Zealand, our Pacific allies are not structured in this way.

So one aspect of the American Edge Project that excites me and attracted me to it is the kind of thinking that Fran just articulated: that maybe we need new structures. I’m not sure we need a new NATO per se, but the idea of bringing together the so-called techno democracies is gaining a lot of traction. And I’d encourage listeners to take a look at the article in Foreign Affairs by Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine, which postulates the idea of bringing together 12 of these techno-democracies. So, a bunch of our NATO allies, but also including India, Sweden, Israel, for example. So I think that we need to be approaching this with an eye toward, ‘Hey, our wonderful network of allies, partners and friends is super important. But how do we find new friends,” if you will? And I’ll close by saying I think India has tremendous potential in this regard.

FRANCES TOWNSEND: I’m glad you mentioned that. You know, they’re talking in India about having sort of much more akin to techno autocratic rules, right, that don’t sort of respect democracy, democratic values, privacy and much more tend to favor a surveillance state. And so it’s never been more important for us to reach out to India and try to pull them. India is the largest democracy in the world. We ought to try to pull them into our sphere as opposed to letting China pull them into theirs.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, it seems like there’s also another aspect of what you’re talking about on the Alliance piece, because, you know, we know that China prefers to cut people out of the herd, right, and work on them one on one. And they really don’t like it when a consortium of nations, however you want to describe it, sort of comes after them; they tend to back down in that situation.

So I think it’s a very important point in your paper regarding how China reacts to that.

Let me ask you, your paper’s organized into three main pillars, and I’d like to give you the opportunity to kind of walk us through them in turn. So let’s start with the first one, protecting the ability to innovate. How is that at risk and how do we go about protecting it?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So I mentioned facial recognition. This is an area where China currently maintains the edge. But look, there are increasing areas, right. For example, where we ought to be able to maintain our technological advantage. But one, we have to understand that to do that, we we have to curtail the theft of intellectual property. And that has to be a real priority. It has been for the last two administrations. And there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be a focus of the Biden administration.

President Biden himself took the opportunity at the Munich Security Conference to talk about this and the importance of our cyber sort of edge, if you will. And so I really think that our superiority here, our ability to innovate – you look at what American companies invest in research and development. The theft of that intellectual property is devastating and sort of discourages the kind of innovation that, frankly, has been our cornerstone. And so I do think that part of maintaining our technological edge has got to do with curtailing the theft of intellectual property.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: And one more thought to that, Sandy. Another part of this is is specific, I think, to 5G. It’s ensuring that we the United States, in concert with our allies, maintain leadership in that role. And that, again, I think will be something that the Biden administration will pick up from the Trump administration. And then there’s another kind of subtext here, and it’s a subtle one, but it’s getting U.S. and partner nations onto these very influential international standards, setting bodies. And this is not sexy stuff, right? These are a group of organizations that are loosely in the non-governmental organization structure internationally, but they set a lot of policies – data protection, surveillance, patent reform, boring. But let’s get U.S. leadership into some of those bodies. I think that’s part of protecting the ability to innovate as well.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, and some of the things those standard-setting bodies do have disproportionate effects, right. I wanted to ask you specifically, and I’ll pick on Jim here, about 5G. You do a really good job in the paper of describing the problem, and you do close with the with the notion that the Biden administration is going to have to step up U.S. leadership. But that’s a tough one. Everybody wants 5G. The Chinese are probably able to provide it more cheaply than anybody else. Do you have any specific ideas here on what the Biden administration might be able to do?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Yeah. Well, first and foremost, I think we point out to our allies that life is full of choices and this is a choice that we are going to lean in on pretty strongly and therefore we will be working closely with our allies – would be the polite way to put it. But I think we’re going to put real pressure on them to join in with us. Number two, we have got to incentivize our private sector to provide high quality 5G. And I think we can do that with government R&D access, potentially with providing incentives for specific projects. And sometimes people say, ‘Oh, now I’ve got to let the free market do this.’ You know, there are things that free markets are wonderful for. But I would say 5G, if we’re going to do it right, might be an area where you would want government assistance and engagement.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Yeah. And in some cases, the government, including the Department of Defense, may have to give a little ground. Right. Such as on spectrum rights and that sort of thing.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Absolutely.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So your second pillar is entitled “Securing U.S. Technology Networks and Data Through Enhanced Cybersecurity.” And I think most Americans would already violently agree with you, especially given the recent SolarWinds attack and the Hafnium attack on Microsoft Exchange servers and the increased prevalence of ransomware attacks. Fran, can you give us a sense for what’s at the heart of your approach? And is there anything new that you would propose to enhance cybersecurity in the U.S.?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So when we look at the – you and Admiral Stavridis know very well that the risk is really commensurate with the attack surface. And when you think about we’ve grown from about seven billion connected devices in 2011 to twenty five billion today, you know, the attack surfaces doubled here in the United States.

There have been a number of recommendations coming out of the Solarium Commission; Congress basically, you know, I think of the Solarium Commission as the pre 9/11 in cyber. What do we need to do, and how do we need to plan? They had a lot of good ideas, including sort of having the ability, if you will, like FEMA, like ability to surge resources and assets when there is an attack. Many of the recommendations of the Commission were incorporated into the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act and that triggering of new resources. It really requires a very close partnership between the public and the private sector. It it raises the old debate between security and encryption and then government and law enforcement access. This has been, for all of my years in government, right: where do you put the priority? Is it on the safety of the data or allowing the government legal access when it’s appropriate?

I’ve been a big believer that it does not have to be an either-or, but it is a debate that we have to wrestle to the ground so that we can move forward, know this notion of safety of data. Again, back to Jim’s point: We need set of standards that we can all agree on nationally and then with our allies that rules that will both protect data in motion and data at rest. The use of end to end encryption, for example, is, we know, is incredibly important.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Fran, I remember a few years ago that and since then, for the longest time, industry sort of resisted government involvement, not only for the reasons you mentioned, but also that out of concern, it would impose additional costs and raise their legal liability. So do you see that changing at all over the last few years, given the the heightened state of the threat? And what kind of incentives would you sort of lure industry more into this world of cooperating with government?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, you know, there have been a number of hearings on Capitol Hill on this subject. And interestingly enough, while I think big tech companies had resisted government regulation, they now want guide rails. I don’t I’ve never been a proponent of a lot of regulation, especially in highly technical areas, that members of Congress may not be sufficiently expert on to understand the consequences of them. But there is a movement now and a pull from technology companies to set guardrails, right, so that they understand what the expectations are. And Mark Zuckerberg himself has said it’s very important that companies be held accountable for having strong systems that monitor and prevent the dissemination of disinformation. And so I think what you what we will find is an openness by the technology community to a conversation that said they feel very strongly and understandably so about their liability protections that currently exist and not losing those in this process.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Can I just add a couple of thoughts on cybersecurity? So I’m going to give you three very practical ideas, not without controversy. And they’re my ideas. These are not of the American Edge project per se. One is, I think it’s time to create a Cyber Force. I commend the Trump administration for creating a Space Force. I would argue even more necessary and much for the same reasons. We need a Cyber Force. Just like 70 years ago, we needed an Air Force, today we need a Cyber Force. Not huge. Maybe fifteen thousand people out of a department of nearing two million. But we need dedicated, in uniform, culturally grounded and oriented military personnel. I think that has to be part of this, taking entirely the point that in the end, this is going to be very civilian, but you still need a Cyber Force.

Second one, I think you need a significant cabinet level official who is responsible for cybersecurity. We have a Secretary of Agriculture, we have a Secretary of the Interior, we have a number of important cabinet departments, hard for me to think of a broad area that is so important and yet is so underrepresented on the cabinet. The Biden administration has taken a step in this direction, bringing somebody in. Unclear whether they’ll be given actual cabinet status or not. But I think it’s time to seriously consider that.

And third, and this is sort of in the military weeds, I guess, but I would argue we ought to split the National Security Agency away from U.S. Cyber Command. U.S. Cyber Command is a military command. Currently, it’s held by a single officer at the moment, General Paul Nakasone. Those two have different missions, and the National Security Agency, very different, in my view, from the Cyber Command. So those are all big issues. We don’t have time to unpack, but I send them out there as practical ideas that I hope we can broadly have conversations about.

FRANCES TOWNSEND: Jim, I would add one more, and I advocated it during the Obama and Trump administrations. And I think that the Biden administration is open to the idea of building on what Jim said. I think you need, just as we built post 9/11, the National Counterterrorism Center, I think you need a National Cyber Center where you bring together both the military and civilian capability. And it is part and parcel of what Jim’s suggesting. That ought to be part of the mandate of a cabinet secretary responsible in this area.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Interesting ideas, and as you all know as well as I do, the opportunity for many internecine government jealousies arise out of those ideas, but they’re very clear and crisp and and very interesting. Jim, I wanted to ask – I think our listeners might be interested in hearing your thoughts on where cyber offense fits into U.S. government responses.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: You know, there’s a couple of types. There’s sort of the immediate preemptive defense in a way, where you try to shut down somebody before they attack you. And then after somebody attacks you, you might take down, you know, what they just did so they can’t do it again. And then there are other types of cyber offense. Where do you see that fitting into a government response?

I think this is going to be crucial for all of us going forward. I just published a novel, in fact, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War.” It’s set in the year 2034. And one of the opening set pieces is a massive cyber attack. So the question for us emerging is, as these tools of offensive cyber begin to approach nuclear level capabilities and that they can take out electric grids, they can take down transportation systems, on and on, the question becomes, How do you stop them?

I think there’s three parts. You mentioned two of them. One is enhancing our defensive capability. Number two is having a capable retaliatory policy that is measured, that is not perfectly symmetric, but provides our allies at least a pause before they would use a tool. And that leads to the third one, Sandy, which is something all three of us know well. It’s the concept of strategic nuclear deterrence, creating international agreements, regimes where we all agree not to use the massive end of these offensive cyber tools, just like we have agreed since nuclear weapons were used once and only, Thank God, so far in Japan, no one has used another one, largely because of deterrence, because of mutual assured destruction and several sublevels in that, again, a long technical conversation.

But adding to your excellent two points, I would say the third thing is we need to be developing an international regime of deterrence, strategic level deterrence involving these cyber weapons.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Good. The final pillar of your paper is titled, “Advancing a Democratic and Open Internet.” And we’ve touched on this a little bit already. But Fran, can you tell our listeners a bit about how the Internet is threatened and how you propose to protect it?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So as I think I mentioned earlier, right, I divide this topic into techno-democracies and techno-autocracies. One of the things that China is been doing is these very harmful data localisation laws. I mentioned earlier that China is now talking about having the government centrally localise personal information in the possession of Tencent and Alibaba. Those are the sorts of things we wouldn’t even consider. Can you imagine some proposal for the U.S. government to decide it was going to take all the personal data of Amazon, for example – because that’s essentially what this would do. And then it underscores the importance of our pulling together our allies who share our values and to push back. The problem with these restrictive data localisation laws is that China has, just as they’ve had this Belt and Road Initiative, they have a cyber belt and road initiative. They -back to the 5G discussion – while they took it on the road for the Chinese government. And they were much cheaper. And the Trump administration had to push back on our allies not to permit Huawei to get into the 5G infrastructure. I think that this is sort of the forefront of where this battle is going to get fought.

And it underscores Jim’s point. Likeminded nations have to band together to ensure that our values are the ones that we promote; our values, we and our allies in Europe to ensure that we don’t allow China to have the edge in emerging countries in Africa and Asia, where price point really matters. And so whether or not they share China’s values or our values, they may go with the least expensive option, which is not in our U.S. interest.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So, Fran, just to follow up on that, the Chinese would probably say we’re using security concerns over 5G as a fig leaf for the fact they got the jump on us and are ahead of us in terms of building and marketing this thing. Do you think there really is a security issue associated with 5G?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: Well, I do think there’s a security issue with 5G, but not the one that the Chinese are suggesting, right? Look, I think that the the real concern here is because of the Chinese tendency – in terms of their surveillance of their own people, to the extent they embed the capability and technologies that they’re selling around the world, we have to ask ourselves, Do they have that same ability to pull in personal data from around the world because their technologies are embedded in the infrastructure? That’s the national security concern. I think it’s valid. I think based on everything we know about sort of the Chinese, both the Chinese technology and Chinese policy in terms of surveillance, it is a real worry.

And you think, ‘Let’s use NATO’ – and I’ll defer to Jim here. You know, imagine if you’re only as strong as your weakest link. And so if you’re sitting at NATO and folks who are present there are linking back to their home nation’s capability, imagine the vulnerability in a military network if that network and that foreign allied country is relying on Huawei technology. This is the concern. It’s why I think the Trump administration took such a strong position. And I don’t expect that the Biden administration will see this any differently.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: I’ll add that, Sandy, to pick up Fran’s point about NATO. This is somewhat akin to why NATO is objecting to Turkey purchasing the S-400 surface to air missile system from Russia. And then they would have the capability of flying our high-end Joint Strike Fighter against that system. And you just have to be concerned about the data that would be collected and whether that’s on a pipeline back to Russia. It’s a very practical concern here. And I think Fran laid it out just perfectly.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Jim, you’re making a really good point there. It’s why as the commander of NORAD, I would never send F-22s out to intercept bear bombers approaching Alaska, I would only send F-15s because I didn’t want them to get a good look at not only the signature, but the electronic signature of that airplane. Same thing.

Jim, let me ask you this. The section of the paper we’re on right now briefly mentions semiconductors or microchips, which are at the heart of everything digital, as we all know. We got a wake up call recently regarding the microchip supply chain and the Chips Act is now out. Do you think protecting that change should be just about ensuring adequate manufacturing facilities in the US, no matter who owns them? Or should it be oriented towards the U.S. controlling the entire process, including ownership and design and the whole supply chain.

ADM. JAME STAVRIDIS: I think there are a handful of supply chains that are so vital to our national security that we ought to be having a serious conversation about on-shoring them. Chips are certainly one of them. And as you both well know, the largest chip manufacturer in the world is where -Taiwan. And boy, if that is not a juicy little target just offshore from China. We ought to recognize where these supply chains have significant vulnerabilities. I think chips are a very good example of where we would want to at least consider a significant on shoring.

I’ll give you another one, and that is much more prosaic; but we just lived through it. It’s medical supplies. Think back to the start of the pandemic when we were encouraging people to go home and sew a mask. Why? Because that supply chain is coming from overseas. There are a number of these kinds of issues that we ought to look at very closely. I’d put chips at the top of the list. Yeah.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So for either one of you, one of the topics that the paper briefly mentions is artificial intelligence, which of course is very digital and of course very data hungry, which the high speeds of 5G will help service. The National Security Commission, which you mentioned earlier, I think led by Eric Schmidt and Bob Work, has just reported out on that. Kai-Fu Lee has written a very interesting book entitled “A.I. Superpowers,” which outlines four reasons why he thinks China is going to gain a superiority over the U.S., at least on the commercial side. Do either of you have any thoughts for our listeners on maintaining U.S. advantage or regaining U.S. advantage on that topic?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Well, you mentioned Eric Schmidt, who’s a mutual friend of Fran and I, and three years ago at a conference we go to every summer, Eric said, ‘You know, we still have a lead on China, and it’s about two years or so,’ he said, ‘but within three years we’re going to be just about even.’ And I think Eric would tell you, China is accelerating in this area. It’s crucial. And it loops back to where Fran started the conversation with the idea of China collecting all this personal data. There are many reasons they want to do that, including the obvious. One of it allows them to extend authoritarian control over their population. But another crucial reason they want it is they want the data; data is oil, as the saying goes, and it drives machine learning, which is what ultimately drives artificial intelligence.

And we need to, again, incentivize work with our big tech companies in ways that meet American standards for privacy, but also give us the opportunity to work coherently in this area. Up close with a cautionary note again, Eric Schmidt, Google. What happened when Google was involved in the Mavin project? People will have heard about that. Many of the employees leaned away from being involved with that. That’s exactly where we don’t want to be headed. We need private public cooperation here.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, and many of those employees were influenced by, you know, people who were working at Google who might have been under the influence of the Chinese, which is even worse. Right. So let me play devil’s advocate –

FRANCES TOWNSEND: Can I add one point here? Because I think people should not miss the idea that the relationship between government and the private sector, right, our private sector cooperates voluntarily with the US government. And the US government can only access their systems, their data with legal process. Right. That is granted to the government by an independent court. That’s not true in China. And so as Jim makes the point that data is the oil that fuels the AI and machine learning system, our U.S. government doesn’t have the relationship with our private sector where we provide that. Our government does not provide commercial support. That is not true in China. And so it allows the acceleration by accessing the data that relationship between the Chinese government and their big companies like Tencent and Alibaba really accelerates their ability to make gains in this area.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, this really underscores the real competition here between an autocratic democracy, theoretically democracy, and a free market democracy. It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out. Let me let me play devil’s advocate just for a second to challenge you realistically what’s possible in terms of changing the trajectory of this technology race. Huawei spends more on 5G, R&D and all the other telecoms combined. The Chinese market is massive. And you know that that makes a huge difference. And I could go on and on. So sort of the bottom line question is, are the kinds of things that you and others have suggested, even if fully embraced and implemented, are they going to move the needle? Is the ultimate outcome going to be different?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: I’ll take a swing at that ball. I think the short answer is yes, but not immediately. In other words, this is going to take time: the US relationship between the government and the private sector. It’s like a big, massive supertanker – and we have got to get going on this. The Russians have a saying – I don’t quote Russian proverbs a lot, but they say, “It is better to light a single candle than to howl like a dog at the darkness.” What we’re trying to do is raise the visibility, get the conversations moving, and I’ll close with a force multiplier we haven’t touched on in. That is the cadre of leaders, civilian leaders of these big tech industries. I was at a dinner party associated with the Munich Security Council two years ago, before Pandemic Times, a party of 12, a group of high end European businesspeople, me and more importantly to my point, Elon Musk. And boy, when he opens his mouth, people turn and listen. We’ve mentioned Eric Schmidt a few minutes ago, Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Brilliant. One of the leaders of Google. When he says something, people listen globally. So I think they can be helpful in this. This is not going to be a quick process, but it is something that we have the resources. We’ve got to get some way on the ship and move it in the right direction.

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So, Sandy, what I would add to that is, look, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about regaining our edge, right. And maintaining our innovation superiority. One of the imperatives for that is our ability to play defense. The United States has got a horribly aging infrastructure. The president is talking about shoring that up and presenting a very big bill and to put behind it. But in the meantime, we have a very exposed and vulnerable infrastructure, whether it’s the FAA air traffic control system, our electricity grid or water infrastructure. We just saw in February this hack into the Oldsmar Florida water system and a hacker was able to increase the level of the toxins in the water. Now, that was caught because there was a redundancy in the system that picked it up. But not every water system could have picked that up. And imagine if it was a state actor taking down the air traffic control system in the Northeast and us going blind in the air or turning out the lights in the northeast corridor. When that happened, when I was in the White House, that was just the aging infrastructure went out. It was not by virtue of the bad actor, but it could have been. And our first impulse was that is what had happened. And I worry about that. I worry about turning the lights off in New York by a state actor. And so that’s that ought to be the thing that spurs Congress, the US government and our allies, because we’re not alone in that vulnerability to really commit themselves to make progress in this area.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS: Yeah. Let me add to that excellent point. We’ve got to imagine our way into the future here. And wouldn’t it be nice if instead of after Pearl Harbor, we have a national commission after the disaster, after 9/11, we have a national commission after the disaster. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could or or we’re going to I would say after the disaster, the pandemic, we’re going to have a national commission to understand what just happened and how we avoid it in the future. Maybe for once, we can imagine, as Fran just said, what happens if an opponent truly decided to go after our infrastructure? What would it look like? How bad would it be? I think the Solarium Commission is an effort along those lines, but it really is the table stakes in the conversation we’ve got to have going forward.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, as a journalist would say, it’s man bites dog to get people thinking that far in advance. And, you know, the classic grey rhino, you know, the hybrid between the elephant in the room that everybody knows is there and the black swan, that is the catastrophe awaiting. I absolutely share your views on getting ahead of these kinds of things. Let me ask you the paper, this excellent paper, American Edge National Security Policy Paper has been out for only about a month as of this recording. But I’m interested in the kind of reaction you’ve received. Have you gotten any pushback or on the other hand, have you seen any policy movements and the directions you’re advocating?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: So I’ll start. I can’t think of, at least speaking for myself, I’ve not heard any pushback and sort of standing, as you said, man bites dog, everybody agrees. The question is, can the paper help to spur action? I think it’s, frankly, in fairness, too soon to tell in terms of the Biden administration. But every indication is they are taking this seriously. They do want to make progress and that they are open to these ideas. But to your point, Jim’s last point, right, you hope that they get to this on their agenda before something happens. President Bush, who I worked for, came in with a domestic policy agenda. And as you both know, he never got to immigration reform. He never got to education reform because 9/11 happened. And what I hope is — the president has a lot on his plate. We’ve got a crisis at the southern border. We’ve had two mass shootings. And there’s a lot that the White House has to deal with. There are always, for every president, many distractions. And what you’ve got to hope is that there are dedicated senior policy resources devoted to making progress in this area so that they’re not distracted.

SANDY WINNEFELD: So, Fran, you have advised or served in administrations on both sides of the political spectrum. And so you’ve really gotten a great perspective on on all of the issues facing us in homeland security. And in fact, you could argue that that department probably has the most diverse and knotty set of issues of any department in the Cabinet. And I wanted to ask you, you know, we’re coming in the wake of these two shootings that you just alluded to and, you know, the latest in a string. What are your thoughts as sort of a bipartisan observer of this? Are we just sort of admiring this problem or where should we be heading in this area?

FRANCES TOWNSEND: Sandy, this is one of my enormous frustrations. I feel like every time there’s a mass shooting, I get called on to television to talk about what I think is the way forward to reduce the likelihood of such an event. And I say the same thing and we then wait and nothing happens in Washington and there’s another one. And we all say the same things and we make no progress again. So it’s enormously frustrating to me. I have to say, I do think President Biden is right in terms of the assault weapons ban. I’m saying it to the two of you, but this is a weapon of war. No, there’s no reason for anyone not who’s not in uniform to have this sort of a weapon here in the United States. And there is absolute data that proves the point that if you take that weapon away, you will reduce the lethality. You may not reduce the number of these incidents, right, because they’re driven by mental illness and a whole bunch of other things. But if if you don’t have the capability to use a weapon of mass destruction, you just don’t have the capability to kill that many people in a single incident. So if we want to just do something to reduce the lethality in this country, we ought to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

SANDY WINNEFELD: Well, Fran and Jim, I think we’re just about out of time. And I wanted to thank you both for spending time with us today. And I also wanted to thank both of you for your continued service and your your sort of post government life to our great nation. You know, you don’t have to do these kinds of things. And it’s terribly important to have people with the kind of wisdom you can bring to bear on these problems speaking out like you have in this paper. So thank you once again for that. And thank you for joining us today on Intelligence Matters. 

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